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Bouy impact leads to offshore leak

Jan 1, 2003

In the fall of 1971 I was asked to be the navigator of an ocean racing sailboat for her delivery trip, with the possibility of staying aboard for the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit if things went well.

This was more than the average sailboat -- it was the 1962 winner of the America's Cup, Weatherly. After winning the cup she had been donated to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, which sold her to a wealthy industrialist with a yacht racing hobby. She was converted for ocean racing at the Palmer Johnson yard in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., where I joined her in November of 1971. I had recently spent several years navigating the Great Lakes with the Coast Guard, and felt very comfortable about taking Weatherly through the lakes. I was less sure of my navigational prowess in the ocean, but full of confidence. Had I known what was coming, I would not have gone.

The Weatherly's navigation equipment was minimal, consisting of a hand-bearing compass and a loran A set (loran C was not yet in common use). I would not be able to use the loran A until we got to the Atlantic. Other than radiobeacons, there were no electronic aids on the lakes. I had my own sextant and there was a radio receiver for time ticks. A barograph completed our navigation suite. I carefully filled the ink pen and set it.

The trip out of the lakes was brutal. By leaving in November, we were virtually assured of terrible weather, and that's what we had. We ran into a full gale with snowstorms just after starting down Lake Huron, and were forced to anchor in a small partially exposed harbor called Stoneport for a day and a half. A day later, underway again, we got hit with an ice storm which coated everything, including the sails, with a thick layer of ice. In order to stow the jib in Port Huron, we had to pour boiling water on the jib hanks, which were balls of ice. To add to our misery, the boat had no heat. To fight the cold we motorsailed with the engine cover off, to allow engine heat to escape into the cabin. With low freeboard, she was also a very wet boat, especially in a blow.

Lake Erie was a challenge navigationally, with fog and heavy traffic, but I was meticulous about keeping a good DR and insisting on proper steering, and we found all the marks right on schedule. We entered the New York State Barge Canal at Buffalo, and in a week were in New York. After a short refit at Minneford's on City Island we were ready for the ocean trip to Florida. We planned to sail straight to Norfolk with the owner aboard, then on to Fort Lauderdale without him.

Unfortunately, the owner decided to relieve me as navigator and allow a friend of his to do the navigation. The friend was a sometime yachtsman and airline pilot, and we had no reason to doubt his skills.

On a racing yacht, the navigator is often the weatherman also. Having been relieved of my responsibilities, I neglected to thoroughly check the weather map and forecast. The prognosis, I was told, was for a weak cold front to pass through the area, which promised to give us following winds and seas after frontal passage, and winds not more than 30 knots or so. It was getting very late in the season, and we left in a hurry, taking advantage of an evening tide through Hell Gate, and down the East River. Night fell as we motorsailed past Governor's Island, and it was thoroughly dark as we entered the Lower Bay. Weather was cloudy, cold, with light rain and visibility at about one to two miles.

After helping spot traffic and buoys all the way from City Island, I was tired and cold, and went below for some rest, leaving the owner and our new navigator topside. I had just crawled into my gimbaled berth when a huge crash jolted the boat from stem to stern. Instantly I jumped up and looked out the hatchway. "We hit a buoy," someone said. We had hit Ambrose Channel LBB no. 9, dead center. After a careful check for damage, the only visible mark on Weatherly was some crushed wood just under the stemhead. The forestay was tight, there were no loose fastenings, and we were not taking on water. This is a tribute to the strength of the old wooden 12-meters, built of double-planked mahogany over steam-bent oak frames. The owner decided to press on. I felt guilty for having left the deck, and stayed topside until we were well clear of Sandy Hook. I learned the importance of steering courses in channels even in small craft, and of having several pairs of eyes in the cockpit in thick weather.

After a few hours of fitful sleep, I was awakened to stand my watch. On deck the wind was up to 30 to 35 knots, seas building from eight to 10 feet, and visibility still less than two miles. The "navigator" was having trouble picking the loran A signals out of the "grass" of the scope, and was surprised when I told him that at night the radiation layers often caused skywaves to appear, which had to be distinguished from ground waves if any kind of fix was to result. I was just as surprised to hear he didn't know this, and resolved to keep a much closer eye on his navigation from then on. (I was rather expert at loran A, having learned its intricacies while standing Ocean Station Delta in the Coast Guard.)

By midday the winds were gusting to 50 knots, seas were 15 feet, and poor old Weatherly was shipping water. We all wondered what unseen damage our encounter with the buoy had done, but we were too far offshore to run for cover, and there are no harbors on the New Jersey shore suitable for a 12-meter to enter in an onshore gale. That evening, water rose over the floorboards, in spite of our hand pumping. We turned on the engine-driven pump, and made some progress against the rising water. By midnight the water was gaining again, and we had used up both spare impellers. In any case, the strainer continued to clog. The captain closed the engine-cooling water intake through-hull, and disconnected the hose. This allowed us to use the engine-cooling water pump as a bilge pump, with the discharge going out the exhaust pipe. This worked until it clogged, overheating the engine, which then died.

We used the portable hand pump until it also failed. Next, we ran the suction line from the head down into the bilge, and pumped while sitting on the head. It still was not enough, so we broke out the pots and pans and bailed the boat by hand for almost nine hours. Conditions below were abominable. Only four of us were functioning, the other four sick in their berths. Sea bags, vomit, personal gear, and food mixed together in the bilge water. We were rolling so much that the bilge water surged up the insides of the hull, almost to the overhead, with every roll.

On deck it was hardly better. Seas were huge, more than 20 feet. I distinctly remember seeing a tanker pass nearby and watching all four blades of his screw thrashing in the air as a particularly big sea passed under. We were making nine knots under just a storm jib. Weatherly had only about four feet of freeboard forward, tapering to three feet aft, so the deck was constantly awash, and sometimes completely covered with cold green water. Watches consisted of either steering or standing in front of the compass with one's foul weather jacket spread out to protect the helmsman from stinging spray driven by 50- knot winds. Wearing a harness was mandatory for all crewmembers, and tethers were kept short.

At some point, I think it was about 0200 the next night, the anemometer pegged at 80 knots, and then blew away. Only a little while later, we suddenly entered the eye of the storm. In less than a minute, the wind dropped to a whisper, while giant seas heaved from all directions. We quickly made a tour of the deck, secured loose gear, and waited for the wind to come again. We could not see the eye wall; it was too dark. However, the roaring wind and seas gave us ample warning. The wind hit us like a freight train. We were still bailing constantly and barely keeping up with the inrushing water. There was no sleep. There was no navigation. There was only survival.

By mid-morning, the wind had died down to about 35 knots, and seas were moderating as well. This brought a couple more of the crew to life, and lessened the intake of water, too. I was finally able to concentrate on navigation for a few moments. I turned on the loran, and couldn't believe that it still worked. I quickly found two lines, adjusted them to the left edge of the pedestal, read out the TDs, and plotted them. We were about 30 miles off Cape Henry. I gave the captain a course for Norfolk, and by 2200 that night, hurried along by a fair wind and clear air, we moored in Norfolk.

The cause of our nearly losing the boat and our lives proved to be loose keel bolts, undoubtedly loosened by our wild gyrations in the ocean. The lead keel of a wooden 12-meter is about nine feet below the waterline, held on by a dozen or so 1 1/2-inch stainless bolts. Apparently, as we rolled violently for hour after hour, the leverage of the water from side to side either crushed the keel plate slightly or allowed the bolts to actually work loose. We took up 2 1/2 turns on the worst of them, amounting to almost 1/4 inch of travel on each bolt shaft.

Our barograph trace showed the classic depression pattern of a steep fall, followed by a rapid rise, with the greatest winds corresponding to the fastest rate of rise after the center passed. As to why a "weak low" turned into a near-killer storm, the National Weather Service (NWS) has since done extensive research on this phenomenon. It occurs in the fall of the year when a low center passes off the coast and out over relatively warm waters of the ocean. Apparently the heat it picks up causes the storm to intensify and deepen extremely quickly, with forecasting difficult due to the offshore location. NWS is much better at predicting these storms today.

The damage done by our collision with the buoy was repaired later with about $10 worth of mahogany. The owner and his "navigating" friend left the next day. We never saw the friend again.

Richard K. Hubbard is a former Coast Guard officer who works at the Defense Mapping Agency's Hydrographic/Topographic Center.


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